I knew I had made it in life the moment a boy called me “ridiculous.”
Before reaching that status update, other words had come my way from boys and men — “crazy,” “mean” and “vicious” include only some I feel genteel enough to write on paper.
Sometimes these labels come from someone I know too well, and much of the time, they stem from the mouths of people I never once said a word to. Whether they knew me or not proved irrelevant — all that mattered was if I knew myself.
And it’s easy in a world spinning on the tip of a man’s finger to forget who you are.
As far back as second grade in elementary school, I remember an older student blocking me from walking down the hallway to class. His verbal harassment and threatening demeanor felt wrong, but as a girl raised on etiquette and what society deems ladylike, somehow I thought ignoring him wasn’t right. How was a little girl learning about butterflies and Fahrenheit supposed to know?
Years later, the same girl assaulted on her first date in high school wondered whether or not boys always had the final say. The sociology major in me today can’t help but draw on lived consequences to analyze why these experiences remain tragically common for many.
Catcalled for existing and criticized for resisting, women find themselves navigating power imbalances as they socially integrate and mitigate hierarchical ladders within labor, family, economy, culture, education, politics, disability, class, race and religion. But how do you fit yourself into a mold never made for you?
I think we’ve been asking ourselves the wrong question.
I also should clarify, however, that in no way does developing disdain for men lead to a panacea for this predicament. Not a day goes by that I don’t express love and appreciation for the men in my life, and I would never deny the value and growth men bring to our world. But while all men aren’t “bad,” they all have inherited a society that severely needs to reconsider what it means to be a boy, and more crucially, what it means to be human.
God blessed me with two brothers, so I’m not saying I know how every guy works. But, I have gotten to witness from the sidelines the life a boy must navigate. They don’t hold their keys between their knuckles for protection or walk faster due to unwanted hollering. Still, they find themselves at odds with the pressures of what society asks them to be and who they believe they should be.
Both of my brothers grew up to find masculinity means you’re weak if you cry and strong if you dominate. Entering the workforce for my older brother also means grappling with the stereotype of men being worth only how much money they earn. Starting college for my younger brother translates to the notion of “manning up” when stress swelters. And in a similar way that a dude might have trouble believing these statements coming from me as a woman, my brothers also probably have difficulty with disbelieving the unproductive myths told about men.
After all, these tales of testosterone do not simply manifest within the individual, but circulate and perpetuate deep inside the systems and institutions which govern all our lives.
We therefore each face such great expectations based on the identities we present to each other, regardless of gender. Who decides what those expectations are, though, tends to fall under the jurisdiction of men in positions of power. These chosen leaders can make you believe you really are “ridiculous” not because of what you do, but rather for what you refuse to do.
The very act of saying no likely won’t include any promotion or government-protected right — and it might not even feel like the smart choice. It’s the same freedom I contemplated possessing in elementary school and later with more discernment in high school.
But if you won’t be the one to convince a man of your worth — or anyone for that matter — then don’t let him be the one to define it. It’s both that simple and that complicated, all at once.
Boys will be the boys our society deems acceptable — so we need to do better with teaching them what it means to be “man enough.” We need to hold space for them to break down; to love who they want to love; to ask for help in crisis; to be fathers and brothers and boyfriends and husbands whose strength takes root in their mothers and sisters and girlfriends and wives. We must hold them responsible for wrongdoing that privilege traditionally cushions them from. We need to tell them they’re strong and capable and more than enough.
Not only does this mold their lives, but also the lived experiences of women, nonbinary individuals and that second grade girl just trying to get to class so she can learn she’s also more than enough.